December 2nd marks the thirtieth anniversary of the abduction, rape and killing of four U.S. churchwomen—Maryknollers Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and Maryknoll lay missioner Jean Donovan. Their shocking deaths awoke millions to the death and destruction the U.S. government was waging in El Salvador, and which continue today around the world.
Many of my friends are preparing to mark the date with pilgrimages to El Salvador to honor the four women and study the ongoing poverty and injustice that plagues its special people. In a time when the media foists on us the shenanigans of celebrity personalities, from Paris Hilton to Lindsey Lohan, these four women still rise as exemplary human beings. They continue to speak to us, to exemplify the best of the church, and to urge us to do our part for justice and peace.
Good resources to study their lives include Salvador Witness: The Life and Calling of Jean Donovan; The Same Fate as the Poor; and Here I am, Lord: The Letters and Writings of Ita Ford (all from Orbis), plus In the Fullness of Life: A Biography of Dorothy Kazel (Dimension).
After Jean Donovan died, I had the privilege of meeting and befriending her parents, and I worked with them for years to make the incident of her death and its implications more public. And I remember Jean’s mother telling me of a rumor she heard about why the four women had been killed: because Sr. Ita Ford had marched into the military headquarters in Chalatenango, into a room full of soldiers on death-squad duty, right up to the general and demanded that he release a recently captured campesino.
Ita was a diminutive woman, and with typical Salvadoran machismo, the general ignored her. So she upped the ante and stood on his shoes. From a slightly higher vantage point she looked up at his face and pointed her finger toward his nose. Release the campesino, she demanded.
Next day he was free. But Ita’s name appeared a few days later atop Chalatenango’s death list.
Actually, Ita’s passion was not El Salvador, but Chile, where she served for years with her co‑worker and best friend, Sr. Carla Piette. In early 1980, Archbishop Romero issued a call for help, so Ita and Carla volunteered to leave their beloved Chile and move to El Salvador. Carla arrived on the evening of Romero’s death; Ita arrived on the day of his funeral.
In the months that followed, as blood flowed, Ita and Carla found themselves caught in the middle of the war. In the total chaos of violence, the best they could do was chauffer churchworkers and displaced people. During one of those trips, on August 23, 1980, the two women were caught in a flash flood as they crossed a little creek in their jeep. The surge capsized their jeep, filled it with rushing water, and during the struggle, Carla managed to push Ita out the window.
All of them, jeep included, were swept away. Ita barely survived. Several days later, Jean Donovan found Sr. Carla’s naked, battered body twelve miles downstream.
It’s been thirty years now, and Jacqueline Hansen Maggiore, a lifelong friend of Maryknoll Sister Carla Piette, has just published her biography, Vessel of Clay: The Inspirational Journey of Sister Carla (University of Scranton Press, 2010). We finally hear the story of the fifth U.S. churchwoman who died in El Salvador in 1980. I find the book compelling, inspiring, and consoling.
Carla was a teacher, parish leader, prophet, clown, poet and scripture scholar, Maggiore writes. Committed to radical poverty and “the poor ol’ beat‑up people,” Carla entered Maryknoll in 1958, and served as a missioner in Chile from 1964 to 1979. Throughout this intense work among the poorest of the poor, she battled depression, yet somehow found the strength, the author writes, to give of herself with “energy, empathy, and life‑enhacing humor.”
Ita was assigned to work in Carla’s village in 1973, and the two became fast friends. On September 10th, Ita’s father died, so Carla and a friend drove Ita into central Santiago to purchase a plane ticket. They arrived just as the coup began. Within minutes of their arrival, bombs went off at the presidential palace. Allende was killed, tanks and soldiers filled the streets, and marshal law began. Within weeks, seven thousand were imprisoned in the stadium. Under the U.S.-backed coup and dictatorship, Pincohet and his death squads killed tens of thousands of people.
For years the repression and killings continued. And over three hundred missioners and priests were ordered out of the country and at least three killed. Ita and Carla went to the stadium every day during those initial months to try to help the people.
“The Lord is calling me to be poor with His poor,” Carla once wrote a friend from Chile. Maggiore’s book helps us understand that profound commitment of the Maryknoll sisters, exemplified by Carla, Ita and Maura. They lived very simply in poor villages just as the other people did. Their transportation was walking. They shared their food, and helped as they could. Their lives were a constant self‑giving, the “love in action” which Dostoyevsky called such “a hard and dreadful thing.” Carla, like Ita, owned nothing.
In 1976, Carla returned to the states for a sabbatical, made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the thirty day silent retreat, and recommitted herself to the poor of Latin America. Indeed, she told one friend that she was sick of the consumerism, greed and waste among the people of the U.S., and hoped never to return. She underwent extreme culture shock whenever she was in the States, and while there she challenged everyone she met to shed their possessions and side with the Third World poor.
In 1979, after fifteen years of work among Chile’s poorest, she set her sights on Central America. With Ita, she was discerning whether or not to respond to Romero’s call and go to El Salvador. First, she tried Nicaragua. She arrived in Ocotal on the Honduran border in January, 1980, not long after the Sandinista revolution. Though she loved the Nicaraguan people, and would have been a great asset in the village which became a key battleground in Reagan’s contra war, both Carla and Ita were mesmerized by Archbishop Romero, and wanted to help him. They chose to move to El Salvador.
Like others who responded to Romero’s call, the two women were shocked by the daily horrors and massacres perpetrated there by the U.S.‑backed death squads. Carla was inside the Cathedral during Romero’s funeral, as the military opened fire on the crowds outside, killing over thirty. Ita arrived just as the crowd was fleeing. They had plopped themselves from day one into an erupting volcano of violence, trying to serve Christ in the poor.
During her five months there, Carla chauffeured the poor, picked up the murdered bodies, delivered food and medicine, and served the church in Chalatenango with Ita. The horror they witnessed every day is hard to imagine. Jean Donovan wrote in her journal after visiting Ita and Carla a few days before Carla died: “In Chalatenango, there are bodies lying all over the place.”
In this nightmare, Carla looked diligently for God. She called life among the poorest of the poor “a daily circus act.” The day before her death, Carla wrote a friend, “We dolly along in this crazy circus of life where so often the Divine Circus Master doesn’t clue us into the act for tomorrow yet always gives us the strength to perform.” “I leave the future in the Circus Master’s hands,” she wrote another friend.
Ita barely survived the flood, and certainly would not have survived had Carla not pushed her up through the jeep window. Not only did the torrent leave her injured, but emotionally devastated. Still, she was determined to be part of Carla’s funeral preparations. She wrote to Carla’s friends in the weeks afterwards. “Carla’s death has meaning because her life was full of meaning,” she wrote. “May the same be true of us.”
Vessel of Clay is a powerful tale about another great churchwoman who gave her life to Christ in the poor. My only disappointment was that it ended abruptly with Carla’s death; I wish there was a final chapter leading up to the December 2nd deaths of the other four. My own theory is that Carla’s death shook Ita deeply, fortified her to the bone, so that her fearlessness doubled. To the point of standing on the general’s shoes. In her heart of hearts, death no longer had dominion. She was free to die in the campesino’s stead.
So much has happened in the thirty years since—beginning with the deaths of millions and millions of more poor people around the planet, the ongoing warmaking of the United States, and the ongoing collapse of the institutional church. Like Ita, Maura, Dorothy and Jean, Carla shows that in the midst of this circus life, we can still follow Jesus by serving those in need and offering compassion. Like Carla, we can leave the future in the Circus Master’s hands.
As we remember these great churchwomen and do what we can for justice and peace, I think, as Ita wrote of Carla, our lives too will be filled with meaning.